Southern California Residents Blast NASA Plan to Clean Up Rocket Lab Site

An aerial view of part of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills in Southern California. (U.S. Department of Energy)

(CN) — NASA announced plans Friday to clean up a Cold War-era rocket fuel testing site in Southern California — plans that have upset residents who say the space agency and the Trump administration have punted any responsibility for a full cleanup and will leave most of the area contaminated.

Environmental advocacy groups say about 84% of the site will remain contaminated after NASA’s proposed cleanup, which was detailed in a report published this past July.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a 2,850-acre site in Ventura County, was used between 1948 to 2006 to test rocket fuel and conduct nuclear power research.

Besides the rocket fuel, a partial nuclear meltdown at the site in 1959 sent radioactive contamination into nearby residential neighborhoods in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA and the state of California signed an agreement to clean portions of the site by 2017, but none of that cleanup has begun.

This year, NASA proposed listing the entire field site under the National Register of Historic Places due to Native American artifacts found at the site. Advocates say that should come after any cleanup efforts.

The property is broken up into four sections, with an area owned by the U.S. government and administered by NASA and another owned by Boeing. The Department of Energy are responsible for demolition and cleanup of the soil and groundwater at another location, according to NASA’s report.

On Friday, NASA filed a record of decision in the U.S. Federal Register that details its soil cleanup plans.

Advocacy groups say the proposal violates the 2010 agreement between the state and NASA to clean the site to standards that were in place before any of the testing took place.

The alternative to a full cleanup is one of four plans detailed in NASA’s supplemental environmental impact statement.

Melissa Bumstead, who lives about three miles from the site in LA County, called the NASA proposal a lie.

“They’ve fudged the numbers,” said Bumstead, a member of Parents Against Santa Susanna Field Laboratory. “It’s going to leave the community barely protected.”

Bumstead became an advocate to clean up the site in 2015, shortly after her 4-year-old daughter Grace was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.

“Grace was given up to 10 times the normal amount of chemotherapy because of her cancer,” Bumstead said in a phone interview Friday. “A year later she relapsed.”

Bumstead said she’s met other parents whose children were also diagnosed with cancer in the area around the former field laboratory.

It has been nearly three years since Grace received a bone marrow transplant that saved her life, said Bumstead.

But now NASA is attempting to dodge any responsibility to clean up the site.

This latest development is just another example of NASA attempting to avoid a full cleanup according to Daniel Hirsch with the nuclear policy nonprofit Committee to Bridge the Gap.

In 1979, Hirsch taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, when his students discovered a film and documents of the partial nuclear meltdown at what was then a Rocketdyne testing laboratory. He made the documents public and the story was covered by national news outlets. A woman from Ventura County called a news anchor and explained that her child had leukemia and so did some of her neighbor’s children. The anchor directed the woman to Hirsch.

“I said this only jokingly, but I made the mistake of promising to help that community,” said Hirsch. “I promised to help and I’m not very good at breaking promises.”

Epidemiological studies were performed at the site and the many advocacy groups were able to finally shut down the site.

“I’ve been fighting for that community for 40 years,” said Hirsch. “We’re obviously looking carefully to the state to vigorously endorse the agreement that the Trump administration decided to breach.”

Organizer Denise Duffield with Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles calls NASA’s proposal suspect and said, “Polluters do not get to decide what they’re going to clean up. The fate of the cleanup is in the state’s hands.”

The final say on what cleanup plan will be rolled out is up to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which falls under the purview of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency.

CalEPA and NASA did not respond to emails seeking comment by press time.

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